This issue whipped into focus for me as I was writing my novel Finny, a sprawling, coming-of-age story. I started the book from the first-person point of view of a young man named Sylvan Short, who comes home in the first chapter to visit his family and a woman he’d been in love with when he was a kid. I’d been reading Richard Ford and Walker Percy, and I wanted to write like them, with that graceful searching quality, that jocular formality. But it was like Keanu Reeves doing a British accent: I just wasn’t up to it. Sylvan’s narration was halting, a little dull-witted. He couldn’t get me excited about the story.
Usually, when a voice isn’t working for me in a piece, I’ll whittle away at it, revising and revising, scrapping whole sections, until there’s almost nothing left. But I’ve never been able to animate a dead story by doing this. It’s an obsessive impulse, the idea that cleaning something will make it better.
In my novel, I had the family at the dinner table. Sylvan’s father, Stanley, was talking about “great men,” one of his favorite subjects, and he quotes a line from Picasso about how good artists borrow and great artists steal. Sylvan’s sister, Finny—this smart, defiant girl—starts teasing her father a little bit, not in a mean way, just lightening the mood. Stanley tells her not to mock him. And then she says, “I don’t mock. I steal,” playing off Stanley’s Picasso quote.
It wasn’t a moment I’d planned, but as soon as Finny said it, the novel came alive for me. People were reacting to each other, challenging each other, being spontaneous. Finny made me laugh, and she had a wonderful way of cutting through people’s pretensions, which I admired in her from the start.
This gave me an idea. Since Finny was such a lively, entertaining character, why not tell the novel from her perspective? I decided I’d give Finny the love story, instead of Sylvan, and I would tell the book in third-person from her point of view. That gave me the freedom to develop a voice completely different from my own, to get out of myself in a way that I always try to do in my fiction.
Making this switch cracked open the world of the novel for me. Suddenly it became this big, funny, adventure-filled love story, with a lively, eccentric cast of characters and a protagonist I was thrilled to spend time around. The book moves over 20 years, and Finny’s voice is versatile enough to examine both her childhood and her adult relationships.
The interesting thing was that very little had changed about the plot and characters. The difference was completely in who was telling the story: The new point of view breathed life into the novel. I wanted to write the book simply to hear this voice speak. Finny saw the world the way I wanted to see it, with humor and a touch of skepticism and a lot of compassion.
Here’s the way I started the book in Sylvan’s perspective:
Off the train, I headed up the stairs toward the station lobby, and as I climbed, I expected to see some long lost high school friend waiting for the next train back to Philadelphia or New York. My heart whomped in my chest as I imagined the conversation we would have, about his apartment in University City or Murray Hill, a job in consulting or marketing, a girlfriend in law school. And then my turn: single, living in New York, a writer. Fiction. Yes, like not true. I’ve published a couple things. Magazines no one’s ever heard of ...
There were things I liked about it—the use of the word “whomped,” for example, which felt like a word Richard Ford might use—though, all in all, this was a voice I would maybe go on a second date with, but definitely not move in with, the way you have to when you’re writing a novel. It was the voice of someone who was down on himself, prideful and a little self-pitying
I wanted my opening to announce the beginning of an exciting adventure, like the first lines of The Adventures of Augie March or Great Expectations, those classic stories of young people coming into the world. I needed a character who believed in herself, who was bold, who was unafraid to put herself out there and see what happened.
Here’s the opening paragraph of the novel as I rewrote it in Finny’s POV:
She started out life as Delphine, named by her father for the city where the Greek oracle was from, but she’d always had an independent mind about things like names, so she’d gone by Finny ever since she was old enough to choose. It sounded Irish, which went with her dashing red hair, and in any case Finny always liked everything Irish, for no reason she could say. She had an older brother named Sylvan, probably because her father, Stanley Short, wanted to carry on the tradition of the S.S. initials, which always gave Finny the expectation that the name of a ship was to follow. She thought it was dumb to let someone else decide what you’d be called for the rest of your life—what if they named you Pooh Bear or Dishrag—so she went ahead and made that decision herself.I could hear the way this voice would speak, simply from the joke Finny had made at the dinner table with her father. I knew she’d see everything at a slant, even the way parents name children. It gave me a new angle from which to examine all of the novel’s events, and an offbeat understanding of even the most minor interactions, which is what I look to stories and novels to do—to show familiar events in a new light. Finny could do that, because she questioned everything, saw the humor and absurdity in what Sylvan took for granted.
To me, that’s what point of view is in a novel, a way of seeing the world. And that way of seeing gives you the voice of the book. In fact, I think the POV is the voice of the book. Telling events from an interesting perspective makes them interesting. If there’s a character who sees the world in a unique or surprising way, I always want to pay special attention to that character, to do my best to see the world through her eyes. By shifting my book’s point of view, I was able to turn it from a struggle to write into a
pleasure to write. Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.
This article first appeared in The Writer magazine.